Going Down the Slope

NM Educational Retirement Board votes to eliminate private prisons from their investment portfolio

After over a year of lobbying by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, teachers and activists, the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board on Friday voted to divest from private prisons.

The board also agreed to amend its investment and divestment policies. In December 2019, members voted on a policy that orders the ERB to follow the divestment decisions that are made by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

According to the board's rules, Friday's vote does not mean immediate withdrawal of money from prison stocks. That won't happen until the board officially adopts new policies that explicitly remove them from eligibility.

The motion to divest passed on a 4-2 vote, with Donald Duszynski abstaining. Board Chair Steven Gluckstern and member Larry Magid voted against the motion.

A "larger examination" of the board's policies on investment and divestment is now in the works in order to bring a "more comprehensive policy with positions on ESG issues" at one of the future board meetings, Gluckstern said.

ESG stands for environmental, social, and corporate governance factors, and describes a range of information for investors to consider about companies.

"We've now begun to go down that slope," Gluckstern said at the meeting.

Sylvia Johnson, director of communications and outreach for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, has been pushing the board for more than a year to divest from private prison companies, which she and others say operate in the state for profit and at the expense of immigrant and other marginalized communities here.

Johnson is one of hundreds of activists and teachers who wrote in comments to the board prior to the meeting in favor of divestment. She tells SFR she's glad the entity is finally making a decision on a fight she started in July of 2019.

“We’re thrilled…It’s taken a ton to get them to move but it’s a huge step in the right direction,” Johnson says. “I know people on the board said it doesn’t have an impact on the larger prison system but I think it does. The next step is we’re going to be bringing a bill to ban private prisons to the Legislature in January.

The ERB is invested in one private prison, GeoGroup, and it's only 0.02% of the company's stock, according to Bob Jackshaw, the board's chief investment officer. But several board members agreed that even a small amount is too much in a system that has incarcerated immigrant children and had outbreaks of COVID-19, among other human rights abuses. New Mexico also has a larger percentage of people behind bars in for-profit lockups than in any other state in the nation.

Duszynski, who abstained from voting on the motion to divest, said he believes the vote to change ERB policy violates the New Mexico constitution, which he interprets to say that the individual assets should not be evaluated in isolation, but as a complete portfolio.

But board member Adan Delgado, who brought the motion, disagreed.

"The message we have received from our members has clearly indicated that they have a strong distaste for our investment in private prisons," Delgado said. "I don't think the ERB has the luxury of…using fiduciary responsibilities to wash their hands of this issue."

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